‘Nowadays one’s children and grandchildren think one is staid and sober and has never done anything exciting. Little they know.’ (1)
From the very beginning of Mary Turner’s life [i], there were signs that she wasn’t going to have a conventional childhood. Born ‘unwanted’ in Manchester in 1921 ‘because a mischievous aunt ran a knitting needle through a contraceptive’ (1), Mary grew up in the chaotic aftermath of the First World War. Devastatingly, her early life was blighted by a sequence of tragedy and by the time she was fourteen, both of her parents and most of her siblings were dead.
In spite of this trauma, or perhaps because of it, Mary Turner grew into a strong and vibrant young woman, who was prepared to face whatever life could throw at her head on. From rebelling against working in the police force as her aunt wanted her to do – ‘sod that; I wanted to be farmer’ (1) – to her frank views on motherhood – ‘I thought I was pregnant and then found I didn’t particularly want to be (5)’- Mary paints a vivid and lively account of life in wartime in a way we don’t often hear it.
Mary’s memoir is tantalisingly short, at 5,000 words, and mostly focuses on her experiences of the Second World War. Throughout the memoir it’s clear to see that although she wasn’t away fighting battles like her male counterparts, Mary had plenty of adventures of her own.
‘Courting was exciting. Manchester was exciting.’ (2) From courting a ‘nice bloke from Godmanchester, Huntingdon’ (1) who was the resident military at the Traffic and War Department where she worked, to a married policeman she had a ‘bit of affair with’, (3) and her views on her husband Ken, who was serving in the navy and who she married in 1942 – ‘I’m divorced now, thank God’ (4), Mary narrates her colourful love life in frank and unflinching tones, making for an interesting and often hilarious read.
I have also found that despite the surreal setting of the Manchester blitz, Mary’s experiences are ones that still resonate for women today, from battles with her mother-in-law – ‘I decided the apron strings were too tight’ (3) – to internal struggles about sexuality morality.
For all of Mary’s frankness about sex, and her blasé accounts of sexual harassment: ‘I once fought for my virginity in a barn with about six soldiers… and then had to fight their sergeant for the same reason!’ (2) Mary is always conscious to stress her faithfulness to her husband throughout the memoir – although she does add with sharp note of regret and hindsight ‘though with how things turned out, I wonder why I bothered.’ (5)
For me, Mary’s witty and fascinating memoir is an excellent example of the importance of uncovering the writing of working-class people that has often languished in obscurity, especially as they often lived through events that seem alien to most of us now, and can often refreshingly shake up our preconceptions and stereotypical views of working class life in the past.
[I] Turner, Mary. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, 2:777